“They remind us that of all the identitarian markers of the subject – the poet and his pen/is – circumcision is the most circumspect, if circumstantial.”
For some inexplicable reason, the passing of the South African poet Dennis Vincent Brutus (November 28, 1924 – December 26, 2009) finds me wondering about the nature of the objet petit a – or in the stylish Lacanese, “Object small a.” Brutus would understand my reference since he was the first notable African writer to study psychology in the university. “I had many drinks with Christopher,” Brutus had said while raising his glass of beer to mine during the 2007 International Conference on Christopher Okigbo at Harvard University. The small letter “a” is for desire; desire is for love; love is for death and resurrection. As the first letter of the Alphabet, “a” is the beginning of the Word which is reputedly made flesh in the body and blood of the Christ. In this context, “a” is the signifying Alpha Subject which is the Author of life and its end. In a nutshell, “a” is a sign of death unto life and the power of life over mortality.
In the poetry of Brutus sharp images dance extemporaneously in melancholic wonder. Only three other poets equally astound with the leap of their imaginative particular, the triumph of the clunk and clank of the violent projectile: the Greek Archilochus, the white South African Roy Campbell, and the Nigerian Christopher Okigbo. Before the four harsh images that jar the “drink lobes” in the hands of many a distinguished poet, startle with the triumphant glory of a Mendelssohnian symphony. No other poet has more successfully deployed a massive volume of scary hologram – bullet, canon, gun, iron, javelin, knife, scabbard, Sharpeville, spear – in a greater production than Archilochus, Campbell, Okigbo, and Brutus.
The four poets were all soldiers, militant activists, and artists and exiles of justice. The first was a legend and mercenary of multiple Hellenic wars. The second was a campaigner of First World War, Second World War, and the Spanish War. The third was an arms runner and soldier whose Biafran legend came on the heels of his sensational demise on the battlefield. The fourth was a founding member of the National Action Committee Council (NACC) which was formed after the banning of the ANC in 1960, and in which he "had worked closely" with Walter Sisulu (1912-2003). His numerous skirmishes against the South African apartheid regime earned him a prison term (1964-1965) with Neville Alexander (leader of the Yu Chi Chan club), Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, and Sisulu (leaders of the ANC), with all of whom he “broke stones” in the same maximum security section of the infamous Robben Island, before his one-way ticket out of his ancestral land.
The four were famed for their love of women and wine. Archilochus reportedly unleashed a caustic satire on his prospective father in-law at the feast of Demeter, which caused the greedy Lycambes and all his daughters to hang themselves. The thunderous clash of his denunciation of Neobule’s vile and his praise of her purity elicit nothing but tickles of amusement. Campbell’s fight for the love of his wife against a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West (lover of Virginia Woolf) was a celebrated scandal of the Bloomsbury Group at Oxford and the subject of many books including his own epic, The Georgiad (1931). Okigbo’s famous dalliances have been sacralized in Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987), just as Brutus’s greatest love is the subject of his own collection Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968). They teach us that the boorish and translucent lights of the ticklish subject are not mutually exclusive.
The poetry of Archilochus, Campbell, Okigbo, and Brutus is revered for its clinical precision, like the centipedal forge of a Chinese military parade. In all cases, the parts are equal to the whole; the bits are individuated knots in the concatenated centrifuges of a chain gang; each unit is a mark; the cicatrices or kinks grow like the rows of tombs or the plumed headstones of a vast cemetery.
Dennis Brutus was the last in the tradition of Agwu acolytes who made tragedy a song and dying beautiful. They remind us that of all the identitarian markers of the subject – the poet and his pen/is – circumcision is the most circumspect, if circumstantial. Circumcision is always already about incision and excision and exile. It is about the cut or cleavage or hole or missing link. The lost object is the point de capiton of all our being – the subject of a massive global (man)hunt. What is lost in the silence of the unconscious is recovered in the monstrosity of the real. In effect, “a” is the rejected stone, the broken piece of foreskin or prepuce (qua objet petit a), which has become the head of the house. “a” is the magical signifier which Brutus repeatedly circles in his poems as the “simple lust,” a yearning for earth’s succoring femininity, which is all the woe of the desiring machine.
Today, without want or need or lust, having looked for the last and final time “on all things lovely,” poet Brutus eternally rests in the land where he was born, from which he was excised and exited like some vile pus against his sturdy will, a hero. A wandering letter always already arrives at its destination.